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Man arrested for deer-stand shooting says he was fired on first; Hmong leaders condemn shooting
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Vang's arrest left some Hmong citizens in his hometown fearful of a backlash, and a group of Hmong leaders in St. Paul condemned the shootings Tuesday and offered condolences to victims' families. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Court documents filed on Tuesday show that the 36-year-old Hmong immigrant suspected of killing six deer hunters in Wisconsin last weekend told authorities he was called racial slurs and was fired on first. Hmong leaders gathered to condemn the shootings and express sympathy for the victims. But some say racial tension between white and Hmong hunters is not uncommon.

St. Paul, Minn. — Chai Vang told investigators that he didn't know he was on private property when he was confronted by the hunting party. He told the authorities he was walking away when someone fired a shot that struck the ground 30 to 40 feet behind him. Vang told investigators that's when he started firing at the group. However, law enforcement authorities say Vang was the aggressor and hunted down the victims.

Killed were Robert Crotteau, 42; his son Joey, 20; Al Laski, 43; Mark Roidt, 28; and Jessica Willers, 27.

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Image Cha Vang

Denny Drew, 55, died Monday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield, his family announced. Willers' father, Terry Willers, remained hospitalized Tuesday in fair condition, while the other wounded hunter was released late Monday or early Tuesday.

Officials said the victims were part of a group of 14 or 15 who made their opening-weekend trip to Robert Crotteau's 400-acre property an annual tradition.

A judge set bail at $2.5 million for Chai Vang, 36, of St. Paul, Minn., who is suspected in the killings Sunday of six deer hunters and the wounding of two others.

Bail was set after investigators filed documents arguing there was probable cause to hold Vang in the shootings. No charges have been filed.

Deputy Gary Gillis says he was told of two verbal exchanges between the hunting party and Vang: first when Terry Willers confronted Vang and told him to leave the property. Willers remained to see that Vang actually left. Soon he was joined by five more from the hunting party. There was another verbal exchange between Vang and the six hunters.

Vang had been identified by now by the numbered hunting tag he wore on his back.

Soon after, the deputy was told, Vang walked about 40 yards away, turned and opened fire on the other men. The first hit was Terry Willers, who also, reportedly, returned fire but did not hit Vang.

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Image Conflicts not new

Of the six men on the scene with Vang, all were shot. Two were reportedly chased down by Vang, and later found shot dead.

Vang told investigators that he had been lost. He found the unoccupied tree stand and climbed into it. He says he was confronted by a hunter and told he was on private property. Vang says he was leaving, he heard the others approach on ATVs, and says he was confronted. He says he was surrounded and essentially harassed by the group, a nd was called various Asian slur names.

Vang says he was walking away, but he'd seen the one hunter who appeared to have a rifle, point it at him. Vang says he immediately dropped to a crouch, the other hunter fired, and the bullet struck the ground 30 to 40 feet behind Vang. Vang says he returned fire, and the man who had shot toward him dropped; the others ran to the ATVs, and Vang says he continued firing.

He admits chasing at least one of the others into the woods, and that he shot at least one unarmed man in the back.

Vang says he saw three more hunters coming on ATVs. He says he reversed his blaze orange vest to a camouflage side, and reloaded but did not shoot, because these men were armed. These men took some of their companions out of the woods.

Then two more hunters approached on a single ATV, Vang says they chased him, and went past him; one man preparing to shoot. Vang says he shot both off the ATV.

Vang's statement says he returned to the original shooting site, saw that one of the injured was alive and yelled "you're not dead yet." Vang says he shot again in the direction of the man. After that he ran away and did not return to the site.

Vang knew later searchers were looking for him. He said he found a ride with other hunters who took him to a cabin where a game warden was waiting.

Members of the Hmong community say they're just as saddened and angry about the violent killings as everyone else. A group of Hmong leaders held a press conference in St. Paul to distance themselves from the alleged actions of one Hmong man.

"What happened in Wisconsin is in no way representative of who the Hmong people are and what they stand for," said Cha Vang, the son Hmong leader General Vang Pao. Before he began his remarks, Cha Vang stated that he was of no relation to the suspected killer Chai Vang.

"If indeed this individual is found by the courts to be responsible for these crimes, we stand before as representatives of the greater, law-abiding Hmong community to unconditionally, unconditionally condemn these atrocities," he said.

The organizers of the event say they also feared that the involvement of a Hmong person in such a sensational crime would fuel negative stereotypes about Hmong people. Ilene Her, with the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, says she fears that after last weekend Hmong hunters will face more prejudice than they do now. Her says she received calls from five hunters in one day this week who told her that white hunters pointed guns at them and told them to get off of public land.

"We've heard from hunters who went hunting last weekend in Wisconsin and a couple of them did face some racial tension in that area. And from private testimony from the community they've called us and said yes there are situations in which white hunters think this is their country - Asian hunters, this is not their country," she said.

But state Rep. Cy Thao played down the racial component of the tension between hunters. He says a hunter friend of his told him that clashing over the best spots to hunt is part of the culture.

"He expressed that even he himself... there's tensions within the hunting culture; of determining whose deer stand it was. And so I don't think this is unique to one group of people," Thao said.

Government agencies in both Minnesota and Wisconsin have sought to address conflicts that sometimes arise when Hmong hunters don't follow rules about hunting on private land without permission.

Tong Vang, who works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is involved with programs that help educate Hmong hunters. Vang says the shootings in Wisconsin are less about a misunderstanding of the rules and more about a criminal act.

"This is something like -- that could happen on the field or at a school when people are violent and killing each other. Not related to hunting or rules or regulations," he said.

Tong Vang also says he's not worried about any problems this weekend as more hunters head to the woods and fields in search of deer.

The Associated Press assisted in this report.

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